Is the picture above a photograph or a painting?
I stood before it at the National Portrait Gallery in London recently and, truly, I could have been convinced either way. Especially since the Photorealism detail of the woman’s hands was just about at eye level for me.
(Please excuse the blue blur on the ring finger and above caused by reflection on the glass. I did not use flash…)
Turns out, Brooklyn-based artist David Jon Kassan painted the oil on aluminum portrait of his mother. I only accepted that fact fully after witnessing him paint another portrait in a video featured on his website.
Kassan, I learned, is an art teacher of world acclaim and sells videos on-line detailing his extraordinary techniques. The portrait, “Letter to My Mom” won 3rd place in the BP Portrait Award 2014.
Photorealism is an American art movement of the 1950’s and 60’s that grew out of Pop and Minimalism, and is a nod to the Dutch masters of the High Renaissance. I am drawn like a bee to honey when I see great works of Photorealism in a gallery or museum.
I’m a big fan of Richard Estes, for example, who is considered to be a founder of the Photorealism movement. His work is shiny and lively. I saw his “Telephone Booths” at the Thyssen in Madrid. There is a double-scene being played out in this large canvas work and I felt instantly pulled into the drama.
This oil on canvas painting of lemons and tangerines in a silver bowl with cellophane is so real, I feel that I could easily pull any one of them out of the picture and eat it. The fruit is so convincing! And, like Estes and the Dutch masters, Meziat captures the light and makes it shine.
The feeling I get when I look at an Estes painting or a Meziat still-life is a happy feeling. We all know that light and color can attract our attention and affect our mood.
Why is it then, since I revere Photorealism, that when I see Kassan’s “raw, poignant and profoundly honest” study of his mother, I feel uncomfortable? Is it too real? Is it not shiny and lively enough for me?
It could be that the astounding in your face aging that he purposely exalts is what shocks me, but then again, I am deeply moved and not at all uncomfortable when gazing upon Albrecht Durer’s loving “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother at the Age of 63” that he sketched two months before she died.
On his website, Kassan’s bio states that he seeks to “capture the essence” of his subjects. He intends for our gaze to transcend the picture plane and permeate deep into the subject’s psyche.
In that way, he reminds me of Rembrandt, who was a great portraitist and produced more than 90 portraits of himself – that show his interest lay beyond the picture plane as well. Gazing into the eyes of his subjects, you could very nearly see their souls.
I have read that in advertising, marketing and public relations specialists traditionally have avoided images of non-real people that look too real. It makes people uneasy. In the same way, baby dolls you buy in stores intentionally don’t look real because that’s considered too creepy.
After reviewing the pictures on his website Kassan has done of other family members (that are equally compelling), I believe my hair standing on end reaction to “Letter to My Mom” has to do with her pose, which to me looks like a funeral position. The grey background has the appearance of a tombstone, and the Hebrew inscription above her could very well be an epitaph.
It reads: “Dear Mom, this painting is my way to spend more time with you. My way to meditate on our life together. And all of the earliest memories I have, all of my earliest memories from you.”
An apology? …in case she gets mad… For making her took dead! It might have been a better choice to paint her with her eyes clearly open.
In the book I purchased in the gift shop about the BP Portrait Award winners, the article on Kassan says that his mother relented to a sitting for the portrait only when promised a portrait of her grandson in exchange.
I sure hope she still feels the exchange was fair.